Europe is resource-poor. Compared to most other continents, we don’t have vast reserves of natural reserves buried underground. But, if instead of under we focus above ground, this shouldn’t be an obstacle to our future development. There is an enormous amount of material to be recovered from recycling waste. According to Eurostat (see Figure 2), approximately 60% of waste is not being recycled, composted, or reused. The technology and knowledge to do more are available, but three main barriers keep us locked within the linear way of managing resources. All three have to do with being circular citizens.
The first one has to do with our way of understanding and relating to work processes. There is no doubt that work is the defining element of our entire existence. The way we organize work determines the way we relate to each other and the environment. Regardless of the political system, ideology, and culture, work is central to human society. And the way we have been doing it has impacted the climate and planetary boundaries in a way that threatens the future of our and many other species.
The linear approach to work is environmentally irresponsible. It is a behavior that shows no awareness of the consequences. As if there was no tomorrow. This mentality relates to the organization of work as the first barrier. Continuing the linear path will lead us to disaster. The alternative is switching to circularity. However, there needs to be a complete restructuring of value chains that will affect not just the business models but also the job market, especially from the bottom up.
In the past decades, impressive progress in technology and management knowledge has been achieved regarding the more circular resource management. However, most of the skills are embedded within the linear ways when it comes to the production lines. This is where one of the main sources of this first barrier comes from. Companies don’t have (many) difficulties finding skilled and trained managers, but they do have problems finding workers capable of performing in a different production setup. No many schools are providing this type of education and/or professional training. And this requires a complete transformation of the school system as well as the job market. We need more circular hands-on employees, entrepreneurs, and crafts(wo)men capable of adapting to new work relations where products become services, eco-innovation drives product design, logistics get inversed, processes get digitalized and materials stay within the loop during many life cycles of the product.
The second barrier is our behavior as consumers. For the circular economy to gain momentum and scale-up the sustainable use of natural resources, there needs to be a strong market demand for recycled products. This requires breaking the mental barriers that still relate recycling to low quality, downgraded, and unreliable products. Recycled products often perform and have the same properties as the primary products. Many among those that are not merely require being switched on the economies of scale, so the economic cost-benefit ratio proves them viable. But even if it does not, in the case of some products that are critical in our day to day life, although the economic viability does not prove them market competitive, the environmental and social function/benefit of their production must be accounted for. This means mainstreaming green accounting, so the cost-benefit analysis covers the entire life cycle of the product. It is up to us as circular consumers to close the loops of material cycles. We can do so by demanding products whose life cycles are not harming the future generations’ prospects to having them too.
This brings us to the third barrier. More circular policies. For the first two barriers to fall, we need policies that will steer the circular society’s governance. There needs to be a new way of governance for standardization, taxation, labeling, legal property, etc. that better regulate the circular economy. Today’s legislation is still intensely linear and under pressure from powerful lobbies who fear losing the political power that assures them privileged positions. It is up to us as circular citizens to demand policies that ensure moving away from linear business as usual natural resource management towards a sustainable, intergenerational, and responsible way of human-nature relations. The circular economy is not a panacea. It does not guarantee environmental sustainability, but it does bring us a step closer. Furthermore, it increases the self-sufficiency of Europe. Therefore, transforming from linear to circular citizens will provide us with a competitive advantage. It will give us access to vast reserves of natural resources whose demand will be highly prized in the near future: circular economy skilled people.